India's 'five sixers' do important business in the Philippines
They are known as the "five sixers" in local parlance, are considered virtually indispensable by the locals, but are resented too and, what is more, their numbers are growing. Meet the Indian expatriates from Punjab who have spread out across the hinterland in the Philippines, making a living from "microfinance" - a polite term for money lending.
There are around 50,000 Indians living in the Philippines, according to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs website. A large chunk of the younger migrants come from Punjab, while the older established families are Sindhis.
There is smart looking Sonu Singh, in his early 30s, who migrated to the Philippines a decade ago right after completing his schooling in India. "I brought along a lot of cash. I sold my portion of my property and migrated here," Sonu Singh told this visiting IANS correspondent while listening to Punjabi folk music in his car.
How much did you bring? "Around Rs.5 lakh," he said, a little hesitantly.
And then? "Well, I started my micro-finance business. I go in my motorcycle to rural areas and offer micro-finance to the people who need money. I also sell them goods like bed sheets, towels, fancy clothes, anything, all in the form of a loan," said Sonu Singh, who slips easily into Punjabi or Togalog (Filipino) but cannot speak Hindi well.
The micro-finance sounds good, till you ask the interest rate - which is rather steep at 20 percent. It is called "five sixers" as for every five pesos they lend, they ask for six back, and they are known to be aggressive.
Sonu Singh and other Indian micro-financiers like him go every week to the people they have lent money or who have bought goods to collect the "interest". If a person cannot pay up, which is often the case, there is some threatening involved, but in the majority of cases they get the money back, or the hefty interest more than compensates for any loss.
"There is a sore lack of banking facilities in the Philippines, especially in the rural areas. These youths from Punjab fill in that gap of money requirement," an Indian official explained, declining to be named.
The US, which took over control of the Philippines from the Spanish from 1898 to 1946 and still shares very close ties with the island nation, imbibed in the locals their "spendthrift ways".
"A Filipino earns well, but spends equally well. By the time it is the 15th of the month, he or she has invariably spent the monthly earnings on good living. The incentive to save money has not been built into the system yet," said an expert, declining to be named.
It is for this reason many Filipinos opt to draw their salary twice in a month - in two half packets.
The Indian micro-financiers step in to fill the void as the Filipinos tend to continually run out of money.
Even the fancy bed sheets, table linen, towels and other household items that the Indians sell against payment in installments is at a hefty profit, admitted Parwinder Singh from Phagwara in Punjab.
What about their visa? How do they renew it?
For this, the ingenuity of the Indians has found a way out. They find Filipino girls who are willing to "marry" them for a price, and a cheap one at that - 10,000 pesos ($223/Rs.14,000) or so. Once the marriage certificate is registered, the "wife" takes her money and becomes scarce, while the Indian continues to stay on with a permanent resident visa.
Or if they cannot manage that, they disappear among the crowd as illegal immigrants.
Mostly such Punjabi Indians marry women from their own land or the daughters of local Punjabi families. No doubt there are some who marry Filipino women.
The "five sixers" phenomenon or going weekly knocking at doors to fetch the interest money has led to growing resentment among the local Filipinos against the Indians.
At the same time, there is a realisation among the people that they cannot do without the services of these micro-financiers.
And so the service continues, with deadly consequences at times.
Every year there are some reported incidents of Indians being murdered or shot while going to demand the interest payment or getting into a fatal fight with rival money lenders who have forayed into their "area".
There are also reports of the Indians getting more money into the Philippines through the hawala route to evade detection, which creates more trouble if they are caught.
The Sindhi families, on the contrary, are well settled businesspersons who have been selling goods at a tidy profit for a living. They have built respectability over the
years and some even rub shoulders with the local authorities.
But there is a discernible stand-offishness among the Sindhis to their poorer and more humble Indian brethren from Punjab.
Cebu has around 1,000 such Punjabis, in comparison to 25 Sindhi families who live in palatial homes. The illegal Punjabis sometimes stay at the local gurudwaras and eat at the langar if they are too poor.
But the lure of making easy money through usurious rates is bringing more and more such youngsters from Punjab to the Philippine shores, Jasbir Singh from Jalandhar admitted while speaking to IANS.